I was inspired at a young age to become a pilot. Like many kids that are influenced by the movies, Top Gun had a particularly profound impact on my future. I vividly remember writing a book in my second-grade class about me and my RIO – his name was Goose. Yes, we flew the F-14 Tomcat, and no, I am not making this up. The year was circa 1986. My family lived near Seattle and our next-door neighbor was an ex-Navy A-4 pilot who was a Northwest Airlines Captain at the time the movie came out. He also remained current in single-engine airplanes. My dad was good friends with the neighbor pilot. At first, I thought it might be because dad wanted to borrow the VHS, but it turned out to be a genuine connection between the two.
Not long after Top Gun was released, my dad had finally done it. He persuaded our neighbor to take our family up in a Cessna 172 from the Renton Airport, not far from we were lived. I was so excited to go flying, I figured it must be exactly like the movies; kick the tires and light the fires! Only thing was, we were in a 150 horsepower, single-engine Cessna at gross weight. This wasn’t a Tomcat and we weren’t getting launched off the Enterprise. Not to mention, I was sitting in the back. Oh, the humanity.
Where I sat didn’t end up changing the outcome for me. I was hooked. If I didn’t already know that I wanted to be a pilot every time I heard, “Maverick’s reengaging!” I certainly knew by the time we came back down to Earth. Now that my fate was sealed, I learned as much as I could about flying; my favorite stories were out of the WWII era. I must have read dozens of biographies and tales of the greatest pilots of that generation: Pappy Boyington, Saburo Sakai, Erich Hartmann, Richard Bong, Jimmy Thach, Butch O’Hare, George Gay, David McCampbell. It also turns out that one of my neighbors had flown the P-61 Black Widow during the war – something I learned only after we moved away.
I took my first flight lesson in a 1946 Taylorcraft at the age of 14 – my dad hand-propped us. A couple of my flight instructors would easily fit the description of “old-timer.” One in particular, Wally Olson, the owner of the old Evergreen Field (59S), was rumored to have been buddies with Charles Lindbergh. Being taught in that environment instilled in me the value of landing on grass, flying a tight pattern, always checking for landing traffic before turning base to final, and midfield downwind meant the start of the power-off approach. Little did I know, the lessons learned at Evergreen would set me up nicely for glider flying. Several years later (after spending my own money), I received my private pilot license for single-engine airplanes. The airfield I learned at has since been turned into condos.
Along the way, I never truly considered learning to fly gliders. Really, it seems my only memory of the idea is seeing the little codes in the corner of ASA test prep study books referring to airplane, glider, balloon, or helicopter. I mean, I knew gliders had a younger age requirement for solo and licensure, but I wasn’t drawn to the idea. If I’m being honest, it might be because my only exposure to flight had been fighter planes, Cessnas, and old taildraggers; they all had engines.
The first thing I wanted to do with my license was add my tailwheel endorsement. All my WWII heroes flew taildraggers at some point of their training – be it a Stearman or a T-6 Texan. I was fortunate enough to complete my tailwheel training in a 1941 J-5 Piper Cub. Flying that machine remains the closest thing to time traveling that I’ve experienced as a pilot. Sure, I’ve been fortunate to ride in some pretty cool stuff – Super Stearman, Travel Air, T-6, and even the jumpseat of a 787. Still, I never had the bug to fly gliders; something about it wasn’t “cool enough” to get my attention. Perhaps, somewhere deep inside, glider pilots weren’t “real” pilots to me.
A few years after I got my pilot license, a coworker and I got to talking about aviation. His dad was a pilot for a major airline and my coworker had his private pilot license in gliders. Once he started describing the thrill of a winch launch, he wouldn’t shut up long enough to answer the work phone. We didn’t get to sit next to each other very much after our manager found out we were always talking about flying. In any case, he was the guy that officially planted the seed in my mind that gliders were something worth trying.
The next inspiration for gliders came the day my uncle and I had flown from El Monte to Catalina Island to Santa Monica. During our stop for fuel and a quick bite before departing on our last leg back home, we noticed all the televisions were reporting a breaking news story out of New York. The date was January 15, 2009. The event was the Miracle on the Hudson. I would soon find out that Captain Sullenberger, was among other things, a glider pilot.
Several years passed, life happened, my flying slowed. I started reading books about pilots again, including The G Stands for Guts about Allied glider pilots in WWII. I also decided to pursue a degree at Purdue University, the alma mater of a guy named Neil Armstrong. It never dawned on me until I started my coursework that Armstrong was also a glider pilot. There’s a 60 Minutes interview from 2005 where his glider flying is showcased and he talks of the freedom soaring brings. My interest in gliders now piqued, I read one last book before pulling the trigger: Transition to Gliders by Knauff. All that was left to do was find a gliderport and go flying.
I decided on Williams Soaring Center in Northern California. The place is a true family operation with mom running the office and flying tow; dad the onsite DPE; the two sons flying tow, instructing, and working the shop. Ben, one of the sons, would be my instructor. I had never sat in a bubble canopy before. That, and the lack of an engine got my attention, despite all the reading prep I had done. The preflight was surprisingly foreign to me. What’s a total energy probe and how do you visually inspect the inside of the spoiler bay? Sure, many things are similar between the average single-engine airplane and a glider, but so much is different.
As we sat on the runway with the tow line attached, briefing the emergency procedures, I felt comfortable and excited to get into the air. It was awkward to not be wearing a headset, just talking in a normal voice to Ben in the back. Finally, with our predeparture checklist complete, it was time to wag the rudder (signal the tow pilot to start the takeoff run). I called on my tailwheel training for this – I was really dancing on the rudder while lifting the low wing and trying to track centerline. Oh, and this was the first time I was taking off with a plane so close in front of me on the runway! In what seemed like seconds, the glider floated up into ground effect. A few moments later, the Pawnee lifted off and we began our gentle climbing turn to the left.
Despite my experience with elevator trim, I found myself clutching the stick and over controlling the glider. A wise word from Ben and I let go of the controls for a brief moment to reset my overpowering grip. Then began the task of getting into tow position. I sucked at that my first time, too. We boxed the wake on our climb up to 6,500 feet. Then, I did the unthinkable – I untethered us from our source of thrust.
I can think of few flying experiences that have given me a perma-grin: the first being the moment my instructor signed my logbook and hopped out of the Cessna 150, leaving me to take my first solo flight; another was taking my young daughter flying in the Cub after school and landing without waking her from her nap; the most recent example was that first glider flight in the ASK21. We rolled out, popped the canopy and I was smiling so much, I feared the instructor might find me unwell. I remember thinking to myself: what took me so long to do this?
Reflecting back, I now realize I was dead wrong about gliders. In my humble opinion, two things set a great foundation to be a truly skilled aviator: tailwheel time and glider experience. Don’t get me wrong, I have no delusions about my need to always be learning; always training to be better, always improving on some skill set that needs attention. I’m simply saying that I’m thankful to have been influenced and mentored by old-timers and pilots with more experience than I’ll ever have, to really hone in on the fundamentals of flight; not just time building for the sake of adding numbers to a logbook.
Now, we can agree to disagree on what makes a good pilot. We can also argue whether power or glider experience makes for better stick and rudder skills. But, if you’ve never flown a glider – if you think, like I used to think, that glider pilots aren’t “real pilots,” I challenge you to go to the nearest gliderport and take a discovery flight. If you aren’t impressed by flying formation with the tow plane, the relative silence after pulling the release handle, how hard it is to stay coordinated in your first few turns, the impressive sink rate with full spoilers deployed, or the sensation of speed in the final moments in ground effect, then you might be beyond fixing. As far as I’m concerned, real pilots need no engines!